The sustainability aspect of energy needs is often not sufficiently addressed by those who provide assistance in humanitarian crisis response operations in post-conflict and post-disaster situations. Despite the fact that UNHCR and other emergency aid organizations have included substantial elements of sustainable energy supply in their policies and plans, implementation is often late or insufficient. The resulting long term humanitarian and ecological effects can be dramatic. In addition, firewood collection poses security problems for women and children, who are forced to travel large distances at the risk of being attacked or raped. There are also significant negative health consequences in cooking practices of many refugees: exposure to indoor smoke can cause acute respiratory infections which lead to a significant number of deaths, especially of women and children (WHO 2006).


Figure 1: Energy needs in humanitarian crises (Photos kindly provided by Institute for Environmental Security; Sources (from left to right): Eric van de Giesen, Virginia Echavarria, Emmanuel de Merode)

An advocacy and learning project has been set up on the issue of energy use – with a focus on household fuels – in humanitarian crisis response situations, collaboratively between the Institute for Environmental Security and IUCN-Netherlands Committee. The goal of this project is to improve the policies and practices of (Dutch) humanitarian aid organisations on fuel-related issues, and to encourage policymakers in the Netherlands to push the issue higher on their agenda. A brief scan of policies and best practices of humanitarian aid organizations and potential alternative energy sources and technologies was published in 2009 and has formed the basis of this article (van Dorp 2009). As a follow-up, a workshop was held in April 2010 in Amsterdam on Emergency Aid and Ecosystems, involving a group of international experts (IES 2010). It is worth mentioning that the IUCN Netherlands Committee, through its Ecosystem Grants Programme, has been providing small grants for initiatives directed at improving environmental management in emergency response situations over the last 10 years (see IUCN-NL, forthcoming).

The following key questions are dealt with in this article:
· Which well-documented cases of ecological damage in and around refugee or internally displaced people (IDP) camps leading to threatened livelihoods are available?
· Who are the frontrunners on integrating energy needs in humanitarian crisis response operations?
· What is the involvement of Dutch humanitarian aid organizations in fuel-related policies?
· What energy sources are potential alternatives that can be implemented relatively easily and where are these alternatives currently being applied?
· What recommendations can be made to donors and humanitarian aid agencies?

Cases of ecological damage in and around refugee or IDP camps

Two case studies of recent crises response operations demonstrate that the ecological impacts of refugee camps and settlements can have disastrous consequences on future livelihoods of both displaced and host communities.

Case Study 1: Rwandese refugees in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The influx of Rwandese refugees in Tanzania and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the mid-1990s led to an ecological disaster with huge impacts on forest and water resources, biodiversity and protected areas. In north-western Tanzania, six months after the arrival of half a million refugees, tree resources within 5 km of the camps had been cut down. One year after their arrival, the average distance for getting fuel was 10 km or more. Pastureland in the vicinity of the camps was seriously overgrazed by the thousands of cattle, sheep and goats that came along with the refugees. Another area of environmental degradation was water shortage and pollution of water resources (soil and groundwater). In some places the vegetation was completely cleared for refugee settlements (HPN 1995).

The Virunga National Park in DRC, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the last surviving mountain gorilla populations, was placed under particular threat by refugees seeking firewood, building materials and for large-scale charcoal manufacturing, since the camps were located at walking distance from the Park. As a result, the World Heritage Committee placed the park on its list of endangered natural world heritage sites (Kalpers 2001). The lack of adequate emergency shelter provisions meant that a lot of trees and bushes have been cut inside or on the margins of the park in order to construct basic shelters. Thatching materials have also been cut, leading to growing tensions and potential conflict between displaced people and local farmers (ProAct Network 2008).

Figure 2: Impact of population displacement on natural resources in Rwanda and eastern DRC (Source: IES 2008)

Various programs have been set up in response to the environmental damage caused by the refugee camps, lead by organisations including the German Cooperation Agency (GTZ), the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the African Conservation Fund. An emergency environmental programme was started by GTZ focusing on Kahindo Camp in the DRC, which bordered the Virunga National Park. IFRC later expanded the initiative to include Kibumba Camp. GTZ also provided a local NGO with technical and financial support for environmental measures in Lac Vert Camp. Together these camps housed 365,000 refugees. The focus was on energy efficient systems, fuel-saving technologies and cooking techniques. An extensive environmental awareness programme reached more than 70% of the refugees. The GTZ experience highlighted that the promotion of better cooking techniques for fuel efficiency was found to be highly valuable.

Case Study 2: Displaced people in Darfur, Sudan

In Darfur, where two million displaced people have been living in camps since 2003, there has been severe deforestation around the larger camps. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP 2007), people living in IDP camps in Darfur are forced to find timber and fuelwood in the surrounding areas, as fuel is not provided for by any humanitarian organisation. Also, wood is collected for fuelling brick kilns, as a means to generate income. Manufacturing bricks by burning wood can require up to 200 trees per day in some camps in Darfur. Nonetheless, such practices are sometimes encouraged by development organisations (International Alert 2007). Between 2003 and 2005, international agencies were the main consumers of construction timber as they set up infrastructure for IDP camps. It is estimated that 1.5 million kilograms of firewood is needed on a daily basis to provide the 2 million people with fuel (Gadgil & Amrose 2006). If there is no widespread adoption of alternative construction methods in Darfur the loss of trees during the reconstruction phase will be considerable.

Firewood collection is practically uncontrolled. This has led to situations where camp residents have to travel up to 15km to find wood, in some cases even up to 75km (e.g. in Kalma Camp) (UNEP 2007; UNEP 2008). It is reported that, due to this lack of accessible firewood, the food security of a significant number of IDP families has been threatened. In the recent past, firewood patrols have been organized to protect women and girls during firewood collection, but these have been abolished due lack of security for patrollers and lack of wood still remaining to be collected (Pers. comm. E. Patrick, Women’s Refugee Commission, 2009). The vibrant relief economy is fuelling a large market for bricks and charcoal, with a dramatic impact on future livelihood options. This is often the only means of earning some income for displaced people and host communities (Tearfund 2007).

The need for coordination of fuel-related initiatives is more acute in Darfur than in nearly any other displacement situation. This is caused by the aridity of the environment combined with the serious protection concerns associated with collection of firewood. This has lead to a wide variety of actors becoming engaged in fuel-related programming with different motivations and with varying results. A report by Tearfund (2007) concludes that in Darfur, environment is not adequately integrated in the relief programme and suffers from a lack of technically skilled personnel. More and more relief agencies have begun focusing on fuel without taking into account what other agencies are doing and without considering the multi-sectoral implications of their work (WRC 2006a). This has led to situations in which some projects implemented to reduce protection concerns are unwittingly contributing to environmental degradation (Pers. comm. E. Patrick, WRC, 2009). Many of the agencies do not have prior experience with fuel-related projects and therefore may not always be implementing in the most effective way. They may also not know how to effectively monitor the impact or evaluate the outcomes of fuel-related projects. For example, in 2006 stoves and stove training programmes were independently supported by a whole range of organisations including the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), UNHCR and other international and local NGOs for a variety of purposes, including promotion of food security and as a protection tool. Each was carried out independently making efforts less efficient, and thus an increase in coordination, including sharing of information and lessons learnt, is recommended. A positive side effect is that over the last five years, Darfur and Chad have become laboratories for innovative practices in fuel-efficient stoves and alternative energy provision.

BP59-A12MVD-Fig-2a (1).PNG


Figure 3a & 3b: Concentrated exploitation of natural resources in displaced persons camps in Darfur have a major impact on already scarce vegetation (Source: UNEP 2007)

A number of organisations working on humanitarian crisis response are actively promoting fuel efficiency and alternative energy sources and technologies. One of these frontrunners is UNHCR, who is leading the process of integration of environmental issues in humanitarian aid projects. In 1996 the first version of the UNHCR Environmental Guidelines was released. Since then, much has happened in terms of translating this policy into practice. However, the organization also admits that much remains to be done. Environmental concerns are still not dealt with in a consistent manner in refugee and returnee situations, but some promising efforts are underway.

In 2001, UNHCR initiated a project known as FRAME – Framework for Assessing, Monitoring and Evaluating the Environment in Refugee-related Operations (UNHCR/CARE International 2005). The project was designed to develop, test and deliver a series of tools to a wide range of users, primarily UNHCR managers and field staff, but also implementing partners government authorities and others working on environment-related support projects or programmes. The toolkit was developed in collaboration with CARE International. The toolkit can help to obtain a clearer picture on fuel-related issues as illustrated in the example below.

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Other toolkits that are paying attention to fuel-related issues include the Sphere Handbook and the Camp Management Toolkit. The Sphere Handbook was developed by a group of humanitarian NGOs and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement in an effort to improve the quality of assistance provided to people affected by disaster. Environment is included in the Sphere Handbook as a crosscutting issue and has been incorporated into the relevant sections of each key sector. There is no section specifically dedicated to energy, and the guidelines are related to improved cook stoves mainly. On a positive note, the Handbook contains a number of Indicators and Guidance Notes for household energy-related interventions. According to experts, however, these specific standards are not sufficient nor are they widely understood or implemented.

UNHCR is also one of the initiators of the IASC Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood & alternative Energy in humanitarian settings (SAFE), which recently published a number of fuel-related policy guidance tools. It also resulted in the launch of the International Network on Household Energy in Humanitarian Settings (in short the Fuel Network), established in June 2007.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is the first to take the active step of beginning energy-related programming under the SAFE guidelines. Together with the Women’s Refugee Commission, a US-based NGO, two pilot projects have recently started (in Darfur and Uganda). Some individual NGOs have also taken steps in alleviating fuel-related issues. This includes Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), IRC, Oxfam GB, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the ICRC. At present their initiatives are more on a per country basis, as opposed to trying to integrate energy needs into global operations.

Among five Dutch Humanitarian Aid agencies interviewed, (Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Holland, ZOA Refugee Care, Cordaid, Oxfam Novib and ICCO & Kerk in Actie), there is general consensus about the severity of the environmental impacts in and around refugee and IDP camps. The problem of fuelwood shortage was highlighted by the organizations interviewed. Some organisations are actively using the Sphere Handbook.

However, the response to the problem of fuel wood and energy use varies significantly from one organisation to the other. Only a few organisations are actively working on environmental impacts (and thus livelihood impacts) of household fuel use and these include ZOA Refugee Care. In their field operations in Ethiopia, ZOA has been working on the improvement of fuel efficiency for several decades. This includes promotion of improved stoves as well as solar cooking. Cordaid, who is active in both during the emergency response and the reconstruction phase, is supporting projects with fuel-related components, for example through the provision of fuel-efficient stoves in DRC and Sri Lanka.

Other organisations, including MSF, have indicated that they are not concerned with fuel-related issues. Although they are aware of the problem, they are not in a position to work on fuel issues because of a perceived lack of capacity. They wish instead to remain focused on their mission, which is providing emergency medical assistance to populations under risk. One of the reasons why organisations such as Oxfam Novib and ICCO & Kerk in Actie do not work on fuel-related issues, is that they do not implement projects in the field themselves, but through local partner organisations.

The review has revealed that most humanitarian NGOs recognize the need for more attention to fuel projects in refugee camps. However, they either lack the funding and/or the technical and human resources capacity to carry them out. It is primarily a matter of obtaining more resources for implementation of fuel projects and capacity building of staff to carry out these projects.

Potential alternative energy sources and technologies

There is a tremendous amount of information on the efficient use of fuelwood and alternative energy sources. It is concluded that firewood is the default choice; not because it is the best choice, but because it is often the easiest or most obvious and often the one with which the beneficiaries are most familiar. If other safer and more effective fuels or energy technologies were easily accessible – and more importantly, mainstreamed into standard procedures and budgets of humanitarian aid agencies – firewood would not remain the default option.

Below, a number of interesting alternative fuel options or technologies is given:
1. Improved/fuel-efficient stoves: To increase fuel efficiency, improved stoves or fuel-efficient stoves (FES) have been in use for a long time. Improved stoves are the most common fuel-saving measure in refugee situations.
  • A pilot by UNHCR of the so-called “Save80” stove (small stainless steel stoves) with refugee and host populations in Chad started in 2005. The name of the stove comes from its goal of saving 80% of firewood needed for a traditional three-stone fire. However, the stoves are partly manufactured in Germany, resulting in the stoves high cost of US$57 (WRC 2006a).
  • With the support of Unites States Agency for International Development (USAID), an improved stove called the “Berkeley Tara stove” was designed and tested in 2005 and 2006. This stove is based on the Indian-made multi-fuel, metal, fuel-efficient Tara stove. It has promising potential because it can be produced locally from sheet metal at the comparatively low cost of US$10. It was demonstrated to save 50% more fuel than a 3-stone fire. A team of students from Berkeley University (with the help of Engineers without Borders SFP) developed and tested the stove, hence its name (Gadgil & Amrose (2006).

2. Fuel Briquettes: Residues can also be compacted into more energy-rich and user-friendly briquettes. Plant waste or sawdust can be turned into fuel pellets or compressed fuel blocks by a process of compaction, charring and/or carbonisation.
  • An interesting initiative is a fuel supply programme in Thailand. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) supplied refugees with carbonised briquettes derived from sawdust, produced by a number of Thai private companies. Other briquettes were derived from raw material already carbonised before being transformed into briquettes, e.g. charcoaled bamboo waste from industrial operations in central Thailand. Both types of briquette had a much higher value than firewood and hence cooked more quickly and conveniently. They were popular with the refugees, who adapted their traditional stoves to use the briquettes alongside firewood that they were already gathering. The TBBC experience is interesting because it is one of the few examples worldwide of projects distributing charcoal briquettes. It also includes the distribution of fuel saving “bucket” stoves, the so-called Thai buckets. TBBC conducted a survey in all camps in November 2005, which established that approximately 90% of households were using bucket stoves (UNHCR 2002).

3. Biogas: Biogas is a methane-based fuel created from the fermentation of human or animal waste (manure, sewage, green waste, landfill waste) which can be used for cooking or lighting/heating purposes. The leftover slurry can be used as fertilizer. Given the high investment costs and the need to build permanent structures, the use of biogas would only make sense in protracted situations. If host populations would benefit from the installations, the chances of success would strongly increase. UNHCR has mixed experiences with biogas projects in refugee situations:
  • A biogas project in Nepal was prompted by a communal health problem. It started off well because it acknowledged the community-based nature of the sanitation problem. However, it produced only small amounts of gas and fertilizer for the benefit of a few people. In a biogas project in eastern Afghanistan a saving on firewood of 2.5 tonnes per household per year was attained, implying a total saving of 250 tonnes across all beneficiaries. The biogas technology was well accepted and widely taken up, mainly due to a family-focussed approach and cost-sharing mechanism, and by ensuring that user rights and responsibilities were well defined (UNHCR 2002).

4. Solar energy: Solar energy is captured in many ways, such as solar cooking, Solar Photovoltaic (PV) power and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). For the purpose of this review, only solar cooking devices have been described, as these are the most relevant options for refugee situations as an alternative to firewood. There are basically three types of solar cooking devices: panel cookers, box cookers and parabolic/dish cookers (see figure 4). Experiences with solar cooking devices in refugee camps are mixed:
  • Well-known examples of panel cookers include the CooKit panel cooker, which is promoted by Solar Cookers International. They are relatively inexpensive (US$10-12 per unit), they rarely burn food and can be made locally. However, CooKit panel cookers are fragile, especially in a windy environment, and must be frequently replaced. They also cook slowly and cannot be used to fry food. The CooKits have been used on a larger scale in Kakuma Camp in Kenya and Aisha Camp in Ethiopia, and have been introduced successfully in Chad.
  • Parabolic/dish cookers are made up of large interlocking reflective plates, mounted on a rotating frame. A black-painted pot is suspended in the centre of the dish in order to absorb the maximum amount of solar energy. Parabolic devices cook much quicker than the Panel or Box cooker models – a full family meal can be prepared in roughly 45 to 60 minutes. In addition, they can fry food. Disadvantages include the fact that they are labour-intensive in use (they must be turned every 5-10 minutes to face the sun) and their high price of US$150-200 per unit. They are difficult to transport because of their large size and are often shared by several families because of the high cost. Parabolic cookers have been successfully used in Nepal for many years. The Dutch-Nepali Vajra Foundation has supported the use of solar cookers in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal since 1998, covering more than 75% of the camp population in 2006 (WRC 2006b).

5. Biofuels: In refugee settings, there have been some small-scale efforts to introduce biofuels for cooking.
  • In Ethiopia, the CleanCook Stove was distributed by the Gaia Association (UNHCR 2008). This Swedish designed stove runs on ethanol produced from molasses, a by-product of the local sugar industry. UNHCR and Gaia distributed ethanol fuel to some 17,000 users of the stoves in several Somali refugee camps throughout eastern Ethiopia. The stoves are healthier and more efficient than traditional wood stoves or open fires. According to UNHCR, the use of this new stove has led to a reduction of 90-95% of environmental pressure in this arid and semi-arid region, reducing local tensions between refugees and host communities.


Figure 4: Types of solar cookers (Source: Solar Cookers International; http://solarcookers.org/)


Fuel scarcity is not only an environmental problem; it is also a significant concern from a social or humanitarian point of view. Natural resources form a livelihood basis of many refugees and local communities. Destruction of ecosystems due to deforestation – and subsequent soil erosion, soil degradation, sedimentation, loss of biodiversity – can lead to huge irreversible damage to these livelihoods. Fuel scarcity can also cause the regeneration of (violent) conflicts between refugees, returnees and host populations. This illustrates the fact that fuel is as much an environmental issue as it is a security issue.

There is sufficient information available on how best to cope with fuel scarcity. Among international humanitarian agencies and NGOs, there is consensus on the need for more attention to fuel strategies in refugee camps. Many individuals within these organisations acknowledge the importance of integrating the sustainability aspect of fuel as a key component of emergency aid operations, as recommended by UNHCR and the IASC Task Force SAFE. These individuals are aware of the urgency of this and are keen to see changes implemented. However, making this a priority within their own organizations/departments is much more complicated.

On an organisational level, most agencies claim they either lack the funding and/or the technical and human resources capacity to carry them out. The problem is that the speed and scale of the coping strategies are lagging behind the urgency and dramatic scale of the problem of fuel scarcity in many protracted refugee situations. A key factor is that the fuel - ecosystem link is not mainstreamed into operational procedures.

Most of the training and stove distribution in refugee and IDP camps have, so far, been ad hoc in nature. There has been little sharing of best practices within or between agencies in the same region, leading to significant inefficiencies in programming and design. A general tendency is that emergency aid organisations (working in the acute emergency phase) focus more on the protection/security issues of fuel, while organisations that are focused on early recovery and rehabilitation focus more on the environmental/livelihood issues of fuel. Despite the difference in scope (short term vs. long term), both types of organisations are in essence striving for the same thing: more sustainable fuel supplies and improved livelihoods.


The following recommendations are made to donors and humanitarian aid agencies:
  • Emergency relief should not destroy future development options for the refugees, returnees or host populations. It is crucial that the long-term ecosystem impacts of the relief operations are fully taken into account from the planning stages. Donors of emergency aid programmes must assure this approach is mainstreamed in order to also avoid potentially huge development aid expenses (caused by soil erosion or lack of drinking water supply) in the future.

  • More attention is needed on the inclusion of local conflict analysis and preferably a “Do No Harm” assessment before the implementation of fuel-related projects. The Do No Harm method was developed by the US based CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. This will prevent projects from potentially worsening a conflict instead of providing relief.

  • Environmental security should have the same weight as food security, in order to ensure that future livelihoods and human security are not endangered.

  • There is a need for a more structural change of mind-set by humanitarian aid organisations towards willingness to tackle fuel problems in refugee camps. The tools and policy guidelines are readily available and it is now a matter of mainstreaming and implementing them within every humanitarian agency.

  • The budgets of relief operations should include the implementation of low impact domestic fuel supply and related staff capacity building.

  • There is a strong need for better coordination of fuel-related initiatives, starting with further dialogue on this issue among humanitarian organisations. The starting point in this dialogue took place in April 2010 during a workshop on Emergency Aid and Ecosystems, organized by the Institute for Environmental Security and IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands. A more holistic, integrated approach is needed in order to minimise the impact of fuel supply on vulnerability and long term sustainability in emergency response situations.


The author would like to thank all the people interviewed for this project. Special thanks to Mark van der Wal (IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands) and Eric van de Giessen (Institute for Environmental Security) for their support and inputs.

List of References

Dorp M. van (2009). Dealing with energy needs in humanitarian crisis response operations. A Quick Scan of policies and best practices of humanitarian organizations and potential alternative energy sources and technologies. Institute for Environmental Security and IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands. Available at: http://www.envirosecurity.org/fuel/

Gadgil A. & S. Amrose (2006). Darfur Fuel-Efficient Stoves (FES). Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Available at: http://www.bioenergylists.org/btara

IES (2008). Charcoal in the Mist. An overview of environmental security issues and initiatives in the Central Albertine Rift. Institute for Environmental Security. Available at: http://www.envirosecurity.org/espa/PDF/IES_report_Charcoal_in_the_Mist.pdf

IES (2010). Emergency Aid and Ecosystems. Institute for Environmental Security. Accessed 28 April 2010. Available at: http://www.envirosecurity.org/news/single.php?id=304

International Alert (2007). A climate of conflict – the links between climate change, peace and war. Available at: http://www.international-alert.org/pdf/A_Climate_Of_Conflict.pdf

IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (forthcoming). Small grants projects for environmental NGOs in conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa.

HPN (1995). The impact of refugees on the environment and appropriate response. Issue 4. Humanitarian Practice Network

Kalpers, J. (2001). Volcanoes under Siege: Impact of a Decade of Armed Conflict in the Virungas. Washington D.C.: Biodiversity Support Programme.
Available at: http://www.worldwildlife.org/bsp/publications/africa/144/titlepage.htm

ProAct Network (2008), Assessing the effectiveness of fuel-efficient stove programming – a Darfur wide review. Available at:

Tearfund (2007). Darfur: relief in a vulnerable environment. Available at:

UNEP (2007). Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment. Chapter 5: Population displacement and the environment. Available at:

UNEP (2008). Destitution, distortion and deforestation. The impact of conflict on the timber and woodfuel trade in Darfur. Available at: http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/darfur_timber.pdf

UNHCR (2002). Cooking options for refugee situations. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/406c368f2.html

UNHCR (2008). UNHCR partner wins green award for pioneering ethanol stove. Website article, accessed 23 June 2008. Available at:

UNHCR/CARE International (2005). FRAME Project – Introduction. Pilot version 2005.

WHO (2006). Fuel for life. Household energy and health. Available at:

WRC (2006a). Finding trees in the desert: firewood collection and alternatives in Darfur. Women’s Refugee Commission. Available at: http://womenscommission.org/pdf/df_fuel.pdf

WRC (2006b). The perils of direct provision: UNHCR’s response to the fuel needs of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Women’s Refugee Commission. Available at: http://womenscommission.org/pdf/np_fuel.pdf

Further Reading

The full, published report on which this article is based has made extensive use of:

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